Manga’s Cinderella story

Graphic novelist Misako Takashima went from rags to riches with the stroke of a brush. Now she tells teenagers that they can do it too


“I want to tell you a real love story,” whispers a pen-wielding Misako, a graphic-novel version of comic artist Misako Takashima, on the first page of the 2007 book, “Rock and Roll Love.”

“It was my first love story,” she adds coyly.

So begins the English-language comic book, in which the New York-based Takashima , aka Misako Rocks!, tells the tale of a Japanese girl going to a Missouri high school as an exchange student. There, she falls in love with a cute American musician and works hard to win his love, with the support of her caring friends.

The manga-influenced comic, which vividly captures the highs and lows of youth, first love and friendship, is based partly on the 33-year-old artist’s own experience of studying at Truman State University in small-town Kirksville, Missouri. Just like in “Rock and Roll Love,” which is her second book, Takashima’s 1 1/2-year stay there in the late 1990s changed her life — eventually leading to her career today as a rare U.S.-based Japanese graphic-novel artist.

Takashima, a native of Kazo, Saitama Prefecture, says her first connection with the United States was through the 1985 film “Back to the Future.” She became infatuated with lead actor Michael J. Fox and the American life his character represented.

So, upon entering Hosei University in Tokyo at age 18, she moved to act on her infatuation and applied for a scholarship to study in the United States.

Takashima’s life, though, has been more turbulent than that of her illustrated alter ego.

After returning to Japan after 1 1/2 years abroad, she graduated from Hosei. She visited the United States again at age 23, this time working as an intern at a puppet theater in New York. But her work as a puppeteer was unpaid, and she saw her savings quickly evaporate. To make matters worse, she was suddenly evicted from her Queens apartment for no apparent reason. Not knowing what to do, and having no local friends to rely on, Takashima spent about three weeks wandering the city, carrying a suitcase and sleeping in public parks.

Her luck changed when a woman she met while doing some odd jobs offered her a place to stay. It was also around this time that she met her “dream boy” — an aspiring musician from Madison, Wisconsin. Takashima scraped up some money for a ticket back to Japan, but continued a yearlong long-distance relationship with him. They got married when she was 25. The marriage, though, lasted only a few years and she became exasperated by having to juggle several odd jobs to support the two of them. As the marriage fell apart, she became dependent on sleeping pills. It was during this period of extreme difficulty that she stumbled across some English-language manga from Japan. She came to the conclusion that to move forward she needed to publish a book about her rocky relationship with the musician and that the medium of manga was the best way to do it.

Though she had no previous experience or professional skills, she drew up a story line, contacted several major publishers in New York and made a number of fervent pitches. Her break came in 2004 when Hyperion Books, the publishing arm of the Disney empire, became interested in her work and signed her to a two-book contract.

Takashima’s three works so far: “Biker Girl” in 2006, “Rock and Roll Love” and “Detective Jermain” in 2008, have featured strong-willed female characters, through which she has built a fan base of teenage girls, who regard her as a mentor when it comes to relationships and teenage life.

Recognition from her home country followed. In December, Takashima was chosen by influential monthly magazine Nikkei Women as one of their 15 Women of the Year for 2009. She returned to Japan in April as a guest lecturer at Academy Hills in Tokyo and Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.

In an interview with The Japan Times at a Kichijoji cafe in Tokyo, she recounted her dramatic life and how she helped create a boom in the United States girls comics market. She spoke at length about her passion for encouraging and inspiring teenagers with her message, which incorporates the ethos of the American Dream: “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything.”

You recently gave a talk at Academy Hills in Tokyo about your experience of going to the United States and carving out a niche as a comic artist. I understand this was your first-ever lecture in Japanese.

Yes! All my previous speeches have been in English. In fact I spoke at about 20 events up until I came here this time around.

What do you usually talk about in the U.S.?

My audiences are mostly teachers, librarians and teenagers. So I try to cheer them up using my books as a tool. I also give presentations on Japanese culture from my own perspective. I cover a lot of areas during each hourlong talk. I speak a lot at libraries. Because the United States has no manga magazines, there is no other way to promote my work. The best way for publishers to promote books is to approach teachers and librarians. The more you are liked by librarians, the better luck you have.

Let me ask you a few things about how you came to be where you are. I understand you grew up in a very Japanese family.

Yes. I grew up in Kazo City in Saitama Prefecture, which is famous for the manufacturing of carp streamers and udon noodles. I went to a local high school there, and then went to Hosei University in Tokyo. To cut a long story short, when I was 12 or 13, I watched the film “Back to the Future” and I fell head over heels with Michael J. Fox! I was seriously in love with him. So I sent five or so letters to him in my strange English. I found his agent’s address or something in film magazines. I wrote, “Hello. My name is Misako Takashima . . .” I decided then that I would go to the United States.

Were you different from others when you were little?

Yes. For example, I became a vegetarian when I was a teen, when the idea of being a vegetarian was unheard of in Japan. When I was in junior high school, I learned from bookstores and libraries that of all the major universities in Tokyo, Hosei University was offering a student- exchange scholarship in the U.S. That’s how I made up my mind to go to the university. It all started from Michael J. Fox!

Did you like drawing manga from early on?

I loved reading it, but I didn’t draw as much. According to my parents, I did well in Japanese, English and art.

You then went on an exchange program at Truman State University in Missouri, right? What was it like?

It was so rural. I grew up being influenced by Hollywood movies, so I had assumed that America would be full of tall buildings and sexy girls. . . . I had applied for universities on the East Coast and the West Coast, but ended up being assigned to Missouri. I didn’t even know where Missouri was. Then, when I went there, all they had was Walmart and Burger King (laughs). It was a total cultural shock. And it was a predominantly Caucasian town as well. So I experienced quite a bit of discrimination there.

Can you recall a specific episode?

Well, when I went to a supermarket, a little girl would point at me and say, “Mom, she is different.” Or people would look me up and down. Some students would deliberately speak fast in my presence. Anyway, I didn’t want to waste time, so I studied and played hard. And I had to study hard, because, unlike in Japan, college students must study hard over there! But they were good at studying hard during the week and then partying and playing hard on weekends.

What did you do when you played hard?

Well, kids in the countryside can only have parties or create their own punk-rock bands or something, because there is nothing else to do! So they would organize a gig or hold a protest over something.

What kind of protest?

Well, the downtown district there had been declining, so they protested Walmart over that. But the kids thought seriously about issues affecting their community. I also learned that students, even those from rich families, try to pay for their own education. All of this was very shocking to me. So after coming back to Japan, I still wanted to go back to the States again. Then, one time when I went to see “The Lion King,” a stage performance put on by the Shiki Theater in Tokyo, it reminded me of my punk-rock friends in Missouri, and I decided to go to New York to become a puppeteer.

Did you have any experience in puppet-making?

Not at all. I thought I should probably go to university again, but then I decided against it, thinking it would be a waste of time. I also believed internships were the way to build a career in the U.S., so I thought that if I got an internship with a puppet theater, things might open up for me. I was totally optimistic and didn’t think about the downside at all. My parents were like, “We put you through Hosei University and sent you to the United States to study there. Now what? Puppet-making?!”

They couldn’t stop me, though. I asked a (nonprofit, study-abroad) council in Aoyama, Tokyo, to sponsor my visa. I made numerous presentations and demonstrated my passion to become a puppeteer. And that’s how I was granted a J-1 visa, which is issued for internships in the U.S.

Then what happened?

Well, the reality turned out to be very different from what I had imagined. I learned that puppet-making is like volunteer work. Then the 9/11 (terrorist attacks) happened — and I was in Manhattan that day. I felt that a war was imminent. My friends in New York also became mentally unstable and went back to their hometowns. I almost gave up myself as I struggled financially, too. I even became homeless at one point.

Is that true?

Yes. Yet I didn’t want to go back to Japan while my visa was still good. I hated to give up. You have to be like that if you want to survive in New York. Then, a roommate of mine had some teaching experience at a junior high school. She said that maybe I could apply for a teaching job there. So I called the local board of education. They hired me as an after-school art teacher in Brooklyn. It was a run-down, low-income neighborhood, and I had to take a bus to get there from a subway station. Everyone except for me was black. They were so poor that they would steal even the cheapest snack from you. Many of the students were ex-cons, so police officers patrolled the school and you needed to lock the bathroom every time you used it. I was robbed of many things, too. So I had to go see the school principal a lot. But through my experience there, I felt like I had nothing to fear in my life.

I understand that you were married once.

Yes. I met the man — my ex-husband — (during my second visit to the U.S.). He was a musician in Wisconsin. I got to know him through my punk-rock friends (in Missouri), who helped him set up concerts . . . and it was love at first sight. I saw sparks! And I guess my love for him was also fueled by the feeling that I had to go back to Japan soon. So we started to go out, but because I went back to Japan soon afterward, we were in a long- distance relationship. I would work in Japan as a temp worker for about three months, and then went to see him in Wisconsin. I repeated that several times.

When was this?

Around 2002, I think. I was young. (laughs) Then toward the end of 2002, he proposed to me. But then, it didn’t work out because we were both artist-types. We started to fight a lot.

What were you doing in Wisconsin during your marriage?

I juggled about seven jobs — like teaching art, working as a receptionist at the local museum and working as a counselor during three-month summer camps. I also taught Japanese, too. I also met someone at satire newspaper The Onion, and I started illustrating for a column there. But at the same time, my marriage was falling apart. What agonized me the most was the fact that I didn’t have any friends of my own. I mean I had friends, but they were all his friends. So they couldn’t understand my problems with him from my side. I was isolated, and I took sleeping pills every day for about two years. I couldn’t sleep.

Was financial difficulty one reason for the breakup?

Well, it’s really hard for anyone to make a living out of music. We had lots of fights. Then, in around 2003, children coming to the children’s museum I was working at asked me about “Dragon Ball” and “Sailor Moon,” because I was Japanese. I had no interest in them initially because I didn’t watch TV. But I went to the library and saw lots of manga translated in Japanese. That’s when I saw a ray of light shining through. I felt like, “This is why I’m here right now.” I thought to myself that I could create a career (as a manga artist). That’s when I started doodling ideas for “Biker Girl.” Then “Rock and Roll Love” was born out of a 16-page rough sketch I created as a part of my portfolio to publishers. I copied the sample at Kinko’s myself and randomly approached several publishers. I called the general numbers of publishers, asking for an appointment with editors. But when I went to New York to talk to about seven publishers, they all turned me down.


I guess comics were starting to get popular then, but publishers feared taking risks. In the U.S., comics for boys are more popular. My work is for girls.

They don’t have a manga genre for girls?

Not as much back then. They were interested in the idea, but wouldn’t agree to publish it. I didn’t give up easily, though. I asked them what was wrong with my proposals and would not leave until I got advice on how my work could be improved. I could only go to New York once a year because a trip there is costly. When I went there the second time, I brought an improved version. After doing that several times, I took “Rock and Roll Love” and “Biker Girl” to Disney (through its publishing division Hyperion Books). They liked them and offered to do a 200-page graphic novel on them. That’s how my Cinderella story began.

When my agent told me by phone the amount of money offered in the contract, I couldn’t believe it. It’s embarrassing, but I was so surprised I had a toilet accident in front of a library in Wisconsin. (laughs)

Wow. When was this?

In the fall of 2004. At that moment, I felt that I didn’t have to cling to my husband anymore. (laughs)

And that’s when you divorced?

Yes. Women are tough. (laughs)

You deal with high school romance a lot in your work. How do teachers react to that?

Well, high school romance is part of my theme, but my books are also about cross-cultural exchange and a strong message to young people that, if you work at it, your dreams will come true. And librarians are curious about my story, because they know “Rock and Roll Love” is autobiographical. They ask me, “So, what exactly happened to you?’ They are much more open. Librarians at U.S. schools can decide who to invite over as guest speakers, without having to get an OK from school principals. And students love me, asking me to come back.

You seem to have acquired many drawing and storytelling skills yourself. How much of it do you do alone?

I do most of the work. My editor corrects my English.

Who comes up with all the lines?

I do. Then the editor edits the text, but everything else is pretty much my work. It’s been hard.

How did you learn all this? Did you read U.S. comics?

Yes. I have been influenced by a 600-page graphic novel called “Black Hole” by Charles Burns. His illustrations are so powerful, and he has this amazing use of brushes. And the story is about a sexually transmitted disease, but the metaphors he uses are so amazing. Craig Thompson, a friend of mine, draws beautifully as well. Many graphic novelists in the U.S. use brushes, and using a thick brush fits my style. But at the same time, manga has its strengths in storytelling and a delicate description of the psychology of the characters. So I have tried to mix the two elements — graphic novels and manga. And this has proved very popular among children and librarians.

As a Japanese who grew up with shojo manga (girls manga), I could read your books very naturally, partly because you use manga-style drawings. Graphic novels, on the other hand, often look a bit too grotesque to me.

Yeah. It’s a bit more realistic. But Craig’s drawings are artistic. His stuff can be shown in galleries. Manga is popular in the U.S., but not read by everyone. What I would like to draw is something that any teenager in America can enjoy reading. Some fans of mine say my books are the first comics for them. Some are manga/anime freaks but not all.

How do they get access to manga?

The Internet. And libraries. Libraries in the U.S. have all kinds of activities going on and are not just a place to read books. So I give workshops at libraries. Some libraries have a teen center, where you can play music loudly. It’s actually healthy, because (teenagers) can make friends with kids with similar interests at such places.

What kind of responses have you received through your books?

Almost all of my fans are girls. Readers of “Biker Girl” are younger, and they are aged 7 to 13. “Rock and Roll Love” was popular for older girls. Teenagers are very interested in romance. They ooh and aah when I draw Zack, a musician character in “Rock and Roll Love.”

How do you get your story ideas?

In exchange for giving demonstrations on drawing, I have asked the schools to let me sit in on classes, like a biology class or something. I am often mistaken as a student (laughs). And I love watching students in cafeterias. Hip-hop kids are clustered in one corner, while basketball players and cheerleaders always take center stage. For some reason a basketball player boy always goes out with a cheerleader girl. I like watching all that and listening to their conversation. I’m mesmerized by them. I take notes on what is popular, too. I also ask attendees of my demonstrations whether they are seeing anyone. That’s how I research about them. All of that has been put into “Detective Jermain.” When I make speeches, I often get asked to give advice on relationships, too.

What kind of advice?

Like love triangles. Sometimes boys ask me for advice. One boy said he liked this girl so much and he was going to ask her out for a dance, then he was shocked when he saw his best friend kissing her. He said “Detective Jermain” struck a chord with him, telling me, “I guess I should settle for a friendship, like a character in this book, right?”

How many copies have you sold through the three books?

I don’t know. I only know that virtually every library across America stocks my works. But unlike in Japan, there are no periodicals for comics there. There are magazines for teenagers, but there is nothing like Ribon, a monthly magazine for girls comics in Japan. The social status of comic artists is weaker than that of novelists.

Is there going to be a sequel for “Detective Jermain,” which says Volume 1 on the book cover?

Actually, that’s on hold. I’m working on an arty, autobiographical graphic novel titled “Made in Japan.” It is going to be published in 2011. But I’m so busy giving lectures I haven’t had much time to work on it. I’ve finished only Chapter 1 of 10 chapters.

Another one of my ongoing projects is comics for kids. The U.S. has few comics for (preteen) girls to read. There are a few for boys in those ages. Right now, there is one famous comic series for 5-year-olds, which is called “Babymouse.” Manga is rather for teenagers, so there is nothing for kids in between. I finished creating a portfolio for such a project before coming to Japan.

What themes do those comics feature?

Definitely no romance (laughs). I want readers to be aware of the fact that it’s done by a Japanese artist. So the lead character is a quarter-Japanese who grows up in Japan. She moves to Madison, Wisconsin, and the story is about how she overcomes her shyness and makes friends in the United States, and about a bit of discrimination she encounters along the way. Cross-cultural exchange is one area I feel very strongly about.

How do you want your works to be perceived? In Japan, kids comics are purely for entertainment.

Well, I don’t think of it as a form of entertainment. My theme has consistently been, “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything.” And my readers say they have been inspired by my message. And I want to send the same message to first or second graders. Kids today are exposed to the Internet so they have a lot of knowledge, but they tend to get hurt easily. I want to offer something that changes their values and their outlook on life. I’ve experienced so many things in the U.S. in my 20s, like going to the States alone, becoming homeless, having lived through 9/11 and having a marriage and a divorce. . . . There are many things I want to share with them.

So you want to educate them, sort of.

Yes. But if you say these things seriously, kids won’t listen to you at all! So I try to be funny, using my personal experience. I say, “You know how much discrimination I suffered in Missouri?” If a teacher does this, I don’t think she or he would be accepted. I don’t like to be condescending at all, so I’m like friends with my fans.

What is your long-term goal?

I would like to grow with my readers, so eventually I want to draw something for adult women.

It won’t be something like the so-called redi-comi (short for Lady Comics, which are laden with graphic descriptions of sex) in Japan, I suppose?

Oh no, nothing like that. I’ve been shocked by these Japanese comics. I find them so radical. If I published things like that in the U.S., I would get sued! Usually girls comics feature a happy ending, with a girl finding her true love and that’s it. But the reality is nothing like that. So I would like to draw about an adult woman’s struggles and how she overcomes her challenges.